The Personalist Project

I read with interest the post “Are wives supposed to submit to their husbands?” and the ensuing and intelligent comments.  I couldn’t jump in at the time, as I was out of the country, but considering especially that today’s readings at mass included this passage, I thought I would comment now with a new post.

Certainly, I agree with JPII that a mutual submission in Christ (Eph 5:21 “Being subject to one another, in the fear of Christ” [Douay-Rheims] or “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” [NAB])—the passage preceding the ones about the relative roles of husband and wife (Eph 5 22-32)—is the key to interpreting the subsequent passages.  Only this interpretation can do justice to the equality of persons, and to the truth about each person, as we stand before Christ, created, redeemed, and called to glory. 

Incidentally, even in Castii Conubii, where the man is still described more traditionally as the “head,” whereas the woman is “the heart” and “may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love,” there is a prior, foundational (Paragraphs 24-25), and (later) reiterated stress on equality first, as the context in which to read the passages about the different roles. Moreover, the different roles imply different and complementary priorities, of head and heart, priorities of both man and of woman.  In this sense, JPII’s emphasis on equality and complementarity is anticipated already by Pius XI, though JPII certainly goes further in developing the teaching and in concrete explanation and phenomenological description.  Pius XI says: 

24. This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.

25. By this same love it is necessary that all the other rights and duties of the marriage state be regulated as the words of the Apostle: "Let the husband render the debt to the wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband,"[28] express not only a law of justice but of charity.

However, my main purpose not being exegesis, I wanted to acknowledge a theme which came up numerous times in the comments to Katie’s article: How to interpret the Pauline passages about headship?  Is there some mysterious sense to St. Paul’s words here which still retain a deep and true meaning, regardless of how badly they might have been interpreted in the past?  Patrick, Devra, Scott, Roz and others all grapple with this.  Are these passages now to be simply reduced to absolutely nothing but “mutual submission in Christ?”  Is any more than this just prejudiced and time-bound error in the sacred text, to be thrown out like any implication of acceptance of slavery?  (Of course, as far as I know, slavery was never explicitly espoused in the NT the way headship was.)  It would seem that something more, and something more mysterious, is in play here.  Katie herself implies this when she says:

­­Now, none of this is to suggest that there are no important differences between the sexes in marriage, or that there's no meaningful way to speak of the woman as the heart of the home, while the man is the head of the home.

This sounds more like Casti Conubii than Mulieris Dignitatis.  It involves the mystery of different priorities within an equal relationship, as well as the mystery of “first among equals” (in different respects)—perhaps as the Monarchy of the Father has a certain priority within the Trinity or as the Pope is in some sense “first among equals” in reference to the other Patriarchs, Cardinals, and Bishops. 

I thought it would be thought-provoking to share on this topic the thoughts of Sheldon Vanauken from his great love-story A Severe Mercy, wherein he describes the history of his love relationship with Jean Davis, his beautiful comrade-lover and wife.  Van and Davy, as they called themselves, were already a thoroughly modern couple back in the thirties, when their love began.  Their love would be only for two (no children, no room even for God—although this latter changed later) and would be completely unconventional—no traditional roles, not even a regular job—since this would require “separation.”  So they lived for years on a small schooner, travelling the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean. 

Vanauken describes their relationship in the following passages:

It might be mentioned here that the most spirited feminist of later years could not easily fault a union based on sharing and the Appeal to Love in decision-making, a union where no one exercised authority.  We did what was necessary to do—housework or sail-mending—together as a part of sharing: not in the name of women’s rights but in the great name of love. 

To hold her in my arms against the twilight and be her comrade forever—this was all I wanted so long as my life should last…. 

…and this brought us to decision-making—we should decide everything of importance by discussion, discussion until agreement is reached.  No laying down the law by anybody, ever. 

Why, then marry? …It was not, assuredly, a desire to feel ‘married,’ for we thought of marital attitudes and jokes as destructive of love; and we never did overcome our distaste for the words ‘husband and wife’: we said that we were ‘comrade-lovers’.  Perhaps we had a sense that there ought to be a confirmation by ritual of our deep vows.

However, after attending Oxford and meeting C.S. Lewis, they converted to Christianity, much to their own surprise.  However, Davy’s conversion was initially much more complete, of the head and of the heart, whereas Van held back and longed in his heart for the old life and the old relationship dedicated to sharing love and beauty together in this world. Van describes a problem here, which he didn’t know how to address: 

So Davy went on reading the Bible, and I went on not reading it much.  I read other things, novels and mysteries, which she didn’t have time to read.  No longer in loyalty to our lover were we reading the same books.  How could I say: Stop reading Isaiah and read Margery Allingham?  And the old sharing was going in another way.  She was becoming wifely.  She was accepting St. Paul on women and wives.  She seemed to want to be domestic and make things in the kitchen.  I was afraid she might actually obey me if I issued a command.  There was something very humble and good in her attitude towards me as well as towards Christ.  A humble vocation.  But it wasn’t like her.  I almost wanted a fight. 

He doesn’t like at all Davy’s humble submissiveness, though he acknowledges it as good.  He doesn’t want any hint of headship or leadership in any way for himself.  He feels it as a violation within their relationship. He’s allergic to it and always has been—and he wants Davy to be the same. 

Nonetheless, after her death (the “Severe Mercy” of the title, and I’m not giving away any secrets—the reader is aware of her death from the opening Prologue), when he spends a couple of years reviewing every phase of their relationship in loving wonder, thanks, and pain,  he concludes the following (italics Vanauken, brackets mine): 

One insight from the past, which I might have closed my mind to but for Christianity, was not quite so shocking as it would have been if Davy in that last year or so had not seemed increasingly to accept St. Paul’s dictum on the relationship of husband and wife: that the man is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church.  Although we should have fiercely denied it, except perhaps for Davy in that last year, I say that I had exercised a sort of headship—in the sense of an initiatory or leadership role—that was accepted, even desired, by Davy without either of us being aware of it.  It had been loving and gentle, all decisions were discussed, there was never a hint of command, and yet, despite the mutual tenderness and deference, it was, I now saw, there: that veiled and loving headship.  We had eschewed husbandly authority from the first, Davy was combative and intelligent, we believed everything a modern feminist would have urged: yet something of headship had all along been there.  Having known one woman deeply, having myself made every effort to see with a women’s eyes [such that C.S. Lewis even chastises him for going too far in this, saying “Did you want her to feel she had a woman in bed with her?”], I could not now believe that my subtle headship or Davy’s acceptance of it was merely conditioning.  Now I wrote to her about it [posthumously], wondering without decision whether, despite all feminist denial, such a relationship were not inbuilt in the creation and effectively denied—which, after all, we, loving deeply, had not been able to do—only at a heavy cost to love. 

So, is there a subtle mystery here beyond mere prejudice, beyond even social conditioning, and not just the result of (original) sin--a mystery which still lies in need of further explication?  I tend to think so.

Comments (23)

Rhett Segall

#1, Aug 27, 2012 11:03am

This is a wonderful example, Michael, of sexual love. I will go back to my copy of "A Severe Mercy" for further exploration.

If I understand you correctly, you ask whether Van, in coming to terms with his Christian vocation vis a vis Paul's "submission" text, doesn't intuit that in fact Davy tipped the scales towards Van when they had to make a decision regarding issues they differed on. This lends weight, you  tentatively suspect, to an intrinsic orientation of different roles within the marriage community.

I wonder, though, whether that final note of Davy's "submission" might as easily be understood in terms of Karen Horney's temperament analysis (Aggressive, Compliant, Independent) I'm not certain how they functioned in the relationship between Van and Davy but I do know they provide accurate insights into the decision processes my wife Kathy and I are involved in.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Aug 27, 2012 11:43am

If there is a difference between your view and mine, Michael, I think it's to be found here:

This sounds more like Casti Conubii than Mulieris Dignitatis.  It involves the mystery of different priorities within an equal relationship, as well as the mystery of “first among equals” (in different respects)—perhaps as the Monarchy of the Father has a certain priority within the Trinity or as the Pope is in some sense “first among equals” in reference to the other Patriarchs, Cardinals, and Bishops. 

I agree that there is in marriage "a difference among equals" related to the natural differences between the sexes.  What I deny (following John Paul) is that the husband has authority over his wife or that she is his (social) subordinate. 

I think Van and Davy's pre-christian arrangement was at least in a sense closer to the John-Pauline fullness of truth then her post-conversion efforts to apply her understanding of the Bible.

I think Van was right to sense and be repelled by the idea that she was now willing for him to issue commands.

A husband ought not to issue commands to his wife. If he tries, a wife is right to object, IMO.

Patrick Dunn

#3, Aug 27, 2012 12:07pm

Related, and possibly of interest:

In addition to the original article, Msgr. has followed up with some comments.

Devra Torres

#4, Aug 28, 2012 6:58pm

had exercised a sort of headship—in the sense of an initiatory or leadership role—that was accepted, even desired, by Davy without either of us being aware of it.  It had been loving and gentle, all decisions were discussed, there was never a hint of command, and yet, despite the mutual tenderness and deference, it was, I now saw, there: that veiled and loving headship.

This is fascinating, but it's a mystery to me what he means, exactly!

I agree about not issuing commands, but am still left wondering what headship does mean, exactly.  Other passages in St. Paul, like the ones about women covering their heads and not speaking in church, seem clearly timebound, but his references to headship still seem different.

I also think that one unfortunate result of the ideology of androgyny (which I certainly don't attribute to you, Katie, or anyone in this conversation!) is that men get the message that any ability for leadership, strength, and decisiveness that they have is not valued and not welcome.  Then these abilities atrophy, and the women who despised them are left disappointed with the emasculated men that result.

Patrick Dunn

#5, Aug 29, 2012 11:14am

I came across this article, very much related to the topic at hand:

It includes an exegetical section, which I think is worth considering.  In my view, there can be no adequate resolution to the question being considered here and in other posts without proper attention to sound exegesis.  Without it, we could be prone to many errors, including reading our own "personalism" (or some ideology) into the text, into the meaning the text wishes to convey, as the meaning of text, sacrificing balance.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Aug 29, 2012 1:13pm

Without having read the article yet, Patrick, I want to stress again that I take my position from John Paul II who based his interpretation on exegesis as well as hermeneutics and mystical theology.  

And though exegesis is necessary, it isn't sufficient for a right understanding of the Bible.  We need the authority of the Church to get it right.

To me, it's obvious that men as men have natural traits and responsibilities in the family that make the "head" analogy a good one for husbands.  They are intitiators, providers, protectors, etc.  

Likewise women have traits and responsibilities that make the image of heart apt for wives.  They are nurturers and care-givers.  They are typically more sensitive, intuitive and attentive to the individual.

Meaningful sex difference isn't here in dispute.  What is in dispute is whether the husband is in a position of authority over his wife.  I think John Paul (taken together with all the relevant post-counciliar Church teaching) has shown convincingly that Ephesian 5 does not assign authority to the husband.

Husbands ought not to issue commands to their wives; they ought not attempt to "lay down the law" for their wives.

Patrick Dunn

#7, Aug 29, 2012 2:28pm

One of the main points the article I linked to tries to make is summed up well as follows:

"The teaching of the Magisterium with regard to the husband's authority has been reasonably consistent for over 400 years. What may appear to be differences among various documents during that time are more accurately understood as changes in emphasis. Each epoch in salvation history brings unique challenges, and the Magisterium under the guidance of the Holy Spirit faces those challenges. In recent years, the dignity of women has received special emphasis. Yet there is no evidence to indicate that the Magisterium has abandoned its traditional teaching on the husband's authority, an authority closely united to the protection of the dignity of women."

The author highlights that this has been the case especially with JPII's writing on marriage: JPII is concerned with teaching on the dignity of women, yet he does not set aside the Church's traditional teaching on the authority of the husband. 

I think the crucial consideration is "authority."  The Church does not, as I'm sure you know, speak about authority in terms of issuing "commands," and neither do I view it this way. 


Patrick Dunn

#8, Aug 29, 2012 2:49pm

So it would be false, I believe, to speak if as the more common and traditonal teaching is diametrically opposed to JPII's insights. 

Further, I understand that JPII was doing exegesis as well.  However, if the text is only interpreted to mean a downplaying of "authority" of "hierarchy" within marriage, as you've argued elsewhere, and instead it is solely reciprocity that is being expressed, then it presents a problem because the text seems to be clearly calling women to "submission" - if there is nothing essential in that dynamic between a man and woman in marriage, and it is simply an outdated reference relative to the culture of the time, then we face the challenge of explaining 'error' in Scripture.  One could be embarking upon a slippery slope if we start editing the text to suit our own sensibilities too quickly.  The article I linked to deals with that question in particular.

Also, I think the article (implicitly) makes the good point that both man and woman are to "submit," in their own way, lovingly so, just as they are both called to love in their own way...

Michael Healy

#9, Aug 29, 2012 2:51pm

The article Patrick refers to is well worth reading.  More key quotes:

Although there are some who may argue that John Paul II has set aside the Church's traditional teaching on the authority of the husband, the burden of proof rests on them to demonstrate that this is the case. In fact, the presumption must be quite the opposite. Through the papal Magisterium, a Pope may elect to emphasize or highlight some theological or practical aspect of the Church's teaching that in his prudential judgment needs emphasis during his pontificate. Yet short of clear statements to the contrary, we cannot move to the conclusion that the teaching of one Pope stands in direct opposition to another Pope or other Popes. 

To gain additional perspective on Mulieris dignitatem, we turn to its introduction in 1988 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger suggests that the emphasis found in Mulieris dignitatem 24 on the mutual subjection between husband and wife has it roots in John Paul II's exegesis of Ephesians 5. The cardinal says that along "with the most recent exegetes, the Pope considers verse 21 of the fifth chapter as the title of the entire passage." 

Michael Healy

#10, Aug 29, 2012 2:54pm

Ratzinger points out what the text of Mulieris dignitatem 24 indicates: that it is from the concept of reciprocal submission drawn from verse 21 by the Holy Father that John Paul II perceives the "gospel innovation" he outlines in Mulieris dignitatem 24. Such a concept guards against the domination of the wife by the husband.

Ratzinger goes on to say this innovation of the Gospel about which the Pope writes, i.e. mutual submission, does not negate the fact that the verses that follow verse 21 in Ephesians 5 designate the man as the head of the wife. The husband's authority is to be understood in light of its Christological reference (cf. Ephesians 5:25): "to be head means, beginning from Christ, to give himself for the woman," states Ratzinger. 

In Christifideles laici (December 30, 1988), John Paul II himself identifies Mulieris dignitatem as a "biblical-theological meditation" on the dignity of women. This reference is important for two reasons. First, it strengthens the supposition that the Pope's intention in writing Mulieris dignitatem was to turn the papal Magisterium in this very direction, based upon a reflection on holy Scripture. 

Michael Healy

#11, Aug 29, 2012 2:57pm

As a result, it becomes easy to see that a detailed discussion of the specific basis for and exercise of the husband's authority falls beyond the scope of Mulieris dignitatem. (Of course, the dignity of women and the authority of husbands are not only not at odds with each other, but they are also part of the same fabric of Holy Matrimony.)

Therefore, we certainly can say that in his treatment of the role of the husband, John Paul II has not chosen the precise path of Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII, and John XXIII in either perspective or language. Yet we can also say that there is no evidence to suggest that he has rejected the teaching of his predecessors either. As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, the current Holy Father adopts a contemporary exegesis of Ephesians 5. However, an understanding of "mutual subjection" as "mutual love and self-sacrifice grounded in the recognition of equal dignity" would certainly fall within a traditional reading of spousal relationships.

Michael Healy

#12, Aug 29, 2012 2:58pm

Second, John Paul II's classification of Mulieris dignitatem as both a "meditation" and more formally as an apostolic letter places it in a different category of magisterial teaching from either Arcanum divinae sapientiae or Casti connubii, which are both doctrinal encyclicals on Marriage. This is not to de-emphasize the importance of Mulieris dignitatem, especially since it is the work of the current pontiff, but to highlight the continued relevance of Arcanum divinae sapientiae and Casti connubii.

John Paul II's concern is "to vindicate the dignity of women against male domination," rather than to address himself specifically to the nature of the husband's authority as Leo XIII and Pius XI do. However, moral theologian Germain Grisez believes that the "unstated implication" by the Holy Father in Mulieris dignitatem "is that while a wife need not submit to her husband's selfish domination, she remains subject to his rightly exercised authority."

Michael Healy

#13, Aug 29, 2012 3:00pm

From the works of Pope John Paul II cited above, we can ascertain the implicit recognition by the pontiff of the legitimate authority of the husband. Both the fatherhood of St. Joseph and the role of God the Father, which the pontiff addresses in the homily at Terni, imply the exercise of authority or leadership that comes from the position of the head of the Holy Family and the First Person of the Trinity respectively. Familiaris consortio explicitly recognizes the responsibility of the father for the welfare of the family, the very thing to which his authority has been understood traditionally to be ordered.

In the cited Wednesday general audience catechesis, John Paul II acknowledges the sensitivity on the part of the modern ear to such things as the exhortation in Ephesians 5:22. Thus, he seeks to locate the words "Wives, be subject to your husbands" in the context of self-sacrificing love on the part of both spouses. He addresses the analogy contained in Ephesians 5:23 by saying that the wife's relationship with Christ will inform her relationship with her husband.

This is another component of the "traditional teaching" on Ephesians 5. Finally, John Paul II's rejection of "domination" on the part of the husband leaves ample room for the legitimate exercise of authority.

In Mulieris dignitatem, the Pope emphasizes the very reason that Ephesians designates the husband as the "head of the wife," i.e. so that he might give himself on her behalf. This is the very crux of the husband's authority: it is ordered to sacrifice and service on behalf of his wife and family. It lacks any other purpose. 

Michael Healy

#14, Aug 29, 2012 3:01pm

Patrick Dunn

#15, Aug 29, 2012 3:01pm

A husband, called specifically to "love" his wife, is actually called "to be submissive, as Christ submitted Himself to the Cross out of love for His Bride, the Church," and a wife, called specifically to "submit," is actually loving (and leading) her husband in the process: "a woman rules by submitting; she humbles her husband by the generosity of her love. She strengthens him by her dependence, she builds up his character by throwing responsibility upon him; she is queen of his heart by her love."

I think there is either something essential and essentially good in this notion of "authority" between a husband and wife in marriage, or there is not.  If not, then it was either a misinterpretation 'from the beginning' or an error or limitation of the time it was written and/or of the author (the whole "St. Paul the Male Chauvinist" idea). 

If so, then any meaningful interpretation of Ephesians 5 must, I think, come to terms with the fullness of what Paul wrote. Exegisis has to grapple with the text in such a way that the essential goodness of "authority" within marriage is understood in light of the whole, but not explained away.

Katie van Schaijik

#16, Aug 29, 2012 3:13pm

Michael, that's too much quoting for the comments section, don't you think?

Katie van Schaijik

#17, Aug 29, 2012 3:20pm

Patrick Dunn, Aug. 29 at 1:28pm

The author highlights that this has been the case especially with JPII's writing on marriage: JPII is concerned with teaching on the dignity of women, yet he does not set aside the Church's traditional teaching on the authority of the husband. 

I think the crucial consideration is "authority."  The Church does not, as I'm sure you know, speak about authority in terms of issuing "commands," and neither do I view it this way. 

 "Setting aside the Church's traditional teaching" loads the question.  

My claim isn't that he sets it aside, it's that he develops it.  

New insights into the dignity of persons and of women, and into the meaning of marriage have changed (I claim) the Church's perspective, in much the same way that her perspective on freedom of conscience has changed.

Up until recently, the idea that the husband had authority over his wife was never called into question.  So the emphasis was on the need to exercise authority well, viz., with a servant's heart.

These new insights have called into question the idea that the husband has authority—to such a degree that the Church no longer speaks that way.

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Aug 29, 2012 3:22pm

If you disagree, I wish you would point to post-counciliar Church teaching (not just another Catholic's opinion on the matter) that proves me wrong.

Katie van Schaijik

#19, Aug 29, 2012 4:03pm

I've met and corresponded with Fr. Check, and hosted him at my home.  But I don't agree with him on this quesiton.

The fact that he cites Stephen Clark, whose book on man and woman is responsible for the abusive treatment of women in Covenant Communities does not endear me to his view.  

Further, my impression from the article is that he does not fully appreciate the deep personalist roots of JP II's thinking on marriage.  The Pope is not, IMO, being "sensitive to modern ears" in formulating things as he does.  Rather, he is listening attentively, with deep faith and probing intelligence, to the legitimate aspirations of modernity.  That listening causes him to reconsider the passage in question from a new perspective.  In other words, he has learned something from modernity.

I think the fact he is cautious comes from his awareness that legitimate developments of doctrine cannot be abrupt.  It takes time for them to be absorbed fully into Catholic culture and understanding.

Besides the lack of post-counciliar Catholic teaching to support the idea that husbands have authority over their wives, I think I have this in my favor:

It's not the way "JP II marriages" work.

Katie van Schaijik

#20, Aug 29, 2012 4:10pm

I am thinking of Newman's way of explaining the development of doctrine.  He quotes Augustine: "Securus judicat orbis terrarum."  The whole world judges serenely. 

One of the ways we recognize a legitimate development (in contrast to a "novelty") is that over time—even if it is initially the cause of great controversy among the faithful— it is "serenely received" by them as true, as an organic aspect of the One True Faith they have always held.  

The anecdotal evidence suggests to me this is exactly what is happening.  Young, faithful, Catholic couples do not relate to each other in a hierarchical way.  They are companions.  They "defer to one another" in love.  The husband does not claim, never mind assert, authority over his wife.  She does not subject herself, in that sense, to him.  Decisions about the family are generally made together.  If they disagree, they (like the pagan Van and Davy) keep discussing and praying the issue through until they come to agreement.

Katie van Schaijik

#21, Aug 29, 2012 4:16pm

I stress again that none of this abolishes sexual difference and complementarity.  None of this is to deny that men and women have importantly different roles and ways of subjecting themselves in marriage.

What I deny—what I think the teachings of John Paul II justify me in denying—is that Ephesians 5 is to be understood as prescribing authority to the husband over his wife.  

Michael Healy

#22, Aug 29, 2012 8:15pm


Sorry about the long quotes, but the article itself is 10X longer.  I didn't think it was worthy of a new post, but thought making some key quotes available might be helpful.

Katie van Schaijik

#23, Aug 30, 2012 10:03am

The key, for me, about the comments section, is that we want here to be addressing each other and representing our own views. 

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